I didn’t know what to think, where to turn, what to do or how to feel — so I just stood there. Paralyzed by emotion. Before I knew it, tears began streaming down my face. Despite my pleas of cessation, down they poured. My body was riddled by an unease I could not stop nor mitigate. One by one, pairs of eyes from onlookers began to stitch themselves to me.
“Are you alright, sir?” The soft mezzo of a pretty waitress inquired to me in earnest. A query that remained unanswered as I fled the bar. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to do when I got there, but I was ashamed, embarrassed and guilty, so I ran. Guilt was perhaps the most pervasive of motivators that day. For certain the most punitive.
I jogged out through the doors of the pub and onto the streets. I was met with an instant crescendo of city noise; sibilant tires fornicating with roadway, honking vehicles in the distance, clattering voices of those passing by — the world was so fucking loud, and shrinking by the second. I chose a direction and walked hurriedly, desperate to escape the cacophony of my own mind. Problem is, I was running only toward myself.
I managed about three blocks when my eyes caught sight of a neon sign crooning “open.” A liquor store, a place festooned by liquid forget. I dashed inside and procured a bottle of overpriced whiskey, some disposable cups and a cooler bag for discretion. I threw money on the counter and walked out.
I resumed my rudderless voyage, a fruitless journey for sanctuary and quietude. Eventually I found myself at the legislative grounds in the downtown core. A sprawling patch of city square, replete with perfectly trimmed hedges and grass. The fountain was on and spilling upward in brilliant defiance of gravity displaying a mesmeric arc before returning itself to the water below. Coins twinkling like stars rested on the fountain floor beneath the water. Symbols of tossed wishes and hopeful dreams.
I too had a wish and a dream, but I held no coins nor any illusion that my plea would ever be answered. It is in fact a wish that I hold through to this day…
I sat down in a secluded spot that rested beneath the casting shadows of an expansive maple tree. I was pathetic, despondent and grief stricken, the perfect ingredients for self-loathing. Out came the whiskey.
The day I’m telling you about is July 9th, 2008. The reason for my beleaguered disposition? Events that transpired on July 6th of that same year. An incredulous three days prior. I’d been out of the army for about five days by that point. I was still scared shitless of my newly returned freedoms. Life inside the army is a unique one, returning to life outside of it… perhaps more so…
Come that fateful July six day on the week I had released, I received a phone call from a brother still serving at the unit. He would somberly explain to me that we just lost a member of our team to the conflict currently raging in a land far from home. Private Colin Wilmot was just declared deceased — killed while on mission in Afghanistan.
Wilmot was not just a soldier, a name later to be on the news, he was my friend. My brother. I knew him, I knew his voice, his features and his never-ending positivity. We shared food and drink together. We slept in the same rooms while in training, confided in one another during our less perfect moments, and now I was living in a world where all of that was violently condemned to memory. Thoughts sealed in the coffin of a somber mind.
I heard details of his death. Details the media didn’t have. Intimate knowledge of his final moments was given to me. Given to me without request. Each word spoken to me acted as a hammer striking a nail that just wouldn’t set, repetitious slamming against my heart. The ache in my bones in the immediate days following Colin’s death were excruciating.
To solidify this abhorrent flicker in time, I was not permitted nor able to attend his funeral — I was a faceless civilian now, no shiny buttons, no more orders to stand to, no final goodbyes for my fallen friend. From 2008 until now, I’ve never seen his grave. In part due to my inability to look at it, and fractionally due to my wish… a wish free from any fountain or pond — I wish so mightily that it could be my life for his. He was a good man, whereas I’m cursed by a futile hope at trying to be.
I was in the bar that day, drinking to forget, to nullify and dampen the persecution of reality. And when I had gotten up to go to the bathroom, Colin’s face came to life on the television screens scattered throughout the pub. Like a ghost whispering through a room, his likeness froze every muscle and every aching joint in my body. I watched as some newscaster spoke about a man that he did not know, but I did… I loved that man. Twenty-four years old — Christ, he was just a boy.
I guess so was I back then…
A brother in arms reduced to a sad story on the five o’clock news. A tale of sacrifice followed by some salacious celebrity scandal. And just as it would be, his face vanished from screen, replaced by the monotony of corporate ads. Life goes on — Colin does not.
I looked around the bar and no one was looking at the televisions. I was alone in a room littered by dozens. They were all smiling, laughing and enjoying their moments. Rightfully so, I suppose. But in that instant, I hated them all. Every single person in that place represented the bliss of ignorance and the cruelty of apathy. I couldn’t be in that place any longer, so I ran.
Colin wasn’t the first soldier from our unit to be killed while serving in that desiccated land. A couple years earlier while I was still serving, I was tasked as a pallbearer for Corporal Eykelenboom, “Boomer.” The first Canadian medic to be killed in combat since Korea. He was just twenty-three. As was I when I carried him. I held his remains from Trenton Ontario to Comox B.C. I folded a flag, watched as it was presented to his bereft family, and then stood at attention as his remains were lowered into the cold embrace of the earth.
Each squeak and lament from the straps guiding him down still haunt my ears today. I hear it carried in on a gentle wind, it halts me in place every time. While in service, there would be more… Just before Colin was killed, Starker too fell in battle. All three men, medics from our unit. All three men — brothers. All three men, never to be forgotten. At least, not by me.
When I got drunk enough, I stumbled from the legislative grounds and made my way to the downtown recruitment centre. I pulled angrily on the door, but it was locked. Intoxicated rage pressed upon me to “try harder,” so I began pulling and shaking with both hands attempting to open the doors. I was yelling, “let me in! I want back in!! Let me in!!!” My intent was to re-enlist. I still had friends serving over there, I felt like I’d abandoned them. I believed I let my friends die. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing another.
I left the army to become a civilian paramedic. I quickly learned that the fastest way to lose faith in humanity is to place yourself in a position to try and save it. The job broke the final piece of me. I was now a fragmented man working in irony at trying to piece a broken world back together again. Another futile endeavor of mine.
People were staring at me as they walked by, or crossed the street entirely as to avoid me completely. I fell to my knees and turned to sit against the doors for a while. It was becoming evening, but the heat from that July day remained, unwavering. A combination of sweat and tears composed a sorrowful sight for any to see. I believe that this moment was the closest I’ve ever come to appearing as a vagabond. A sidewalk fixture that we’ve all walked by on some busy Tuesday; or whichever day you’d like.
Colin was my friend. He was a good man and a great medic. A dedicated soldier, and a man of uncompromising positivity. Even while transposed to a land of war and death, he told jokes. He made people laugh and gave light to a room, right up until the moment that his went out.
I wish to give a rave to my friend, my brother, and a man I sorely miss — to you, dear brother. To private Colin Wilmot. May you rest in eternal safety and happiness. Your impact is immeasurable and ubiquitous. People are alive today because of you. And because of you, I’ve known the better parts of life; love, loyalty, kindness and compassion — thank you.
Rest easy now, dear boy. Until Valhalla. Stand down. Your watch is done.
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